The college basketball season isn't far off. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.
Last week, Jeff Goodman posed an all-important query: Who is the favorite to win the Wooden Award? On Monday, Dana O'Neil took a similar premise and refined its terms even further, asking which non-freshmen could steal the 2016-17 hoops show. The former, wide-ranging and open-ended, earns untold hours of attention throughout each and every college basketball season; the latter, in the wake of a 2015-16 season basically dominated by seniors, has never been more relevant.
Both questions, though, generally revolve around an agreed-upon notion of who will be the best, the players most likely to earn postseason awards, no matter the stage of their careers, through some mixture of individual brilliance, statistical production and team success.
Here's our cue and our tweak: Which guys are so crucial to their teams, regardless of whether said teams are national title favorites or wallflowers modestly eyeing a fringe tournament bid, that their absence would be crippling? Who are the most important players of the 2016-17 season? And where do the categories overlap?
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island Rams: Here's how important Matthews is: In 2014-15, the 6-foot-5 guard accounted for 29.5 percent of Rhode Island's possessions and 30.8 percent of its shots. He drew 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes and made 49 percent of his 2s all season, pluses big enough to outweigh an ugly turnover rate (22 percent) and so-so shooting from 3 (32.4 percent). All the while, he played excellent defense on the wing. The Rams finished 23-10 and ranked ninth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.
On Nov. 13, 2015, Matthews suffered a season-ending injury during Rhode Island's first game of the 2015-16 season. The Rams finished 17-15. A year later, Matthews is healthy once again, and Rhode Island is a popular low-top-25 selection.
There are other reasons to be excited about Dan Hurley's roster, of course. Chief among them is the wide breadth of players who were required to step up in Matthews' absence the past season. Still, it is impossible to unwind the impact of Matthews' return from the Rams' newfound preseason expectations -- or the outsized role he will have to play to meet them.
Melo Trimble, Maryland Terrapins: Dana already outlined the many reasons Trimble will be one of the most motivated upperclassmen of 2016-17, from the ostensible statistical slump he suffered as a sophomore to the surprise of his being in College Park for a third season.
Those reasons are not entirely unrelated to his presence on this list. Trimble's unexpected junior year is thrown into sharper relief by absences at his side. Robert Carter, Jake Layman, Rasheed Sulaimon and Diamond Stone, the four starters who played so many minutes with him a season ago, are all gone. Although a quality group of players remains (Jared Nickens is in line for a big season, Dion Wiley will be back from injury, Damonte Dodd is extremely solid in the middle, and so on), Trimble is the only bona fide star-level player on this roster (as far as we know now). To do better than the Sweet 16 trips he made his first two seasons, Trimble will likely need to be better -- and even more broadly productive -- than ever.
Peter Jok, Iowa Hawkeyes: A 3-7 finish from Feb. 11 on has made it easy, in retrospect, to forget how good Iowa was for most of last season. Before the late-season backslide (or rubber-band regression or whatever it was), Fran McCaffery's team was 19-4 and 10-1 in the Big Ten, had home-road sweeps of Purdue and Michigan State under its belt, was universally regarded as a a top-five team/national title contender and was led by a brilliant senior season from Wooden Award candidate Jarrod Uthoff. That, of course, all came crashing down, and no one remembers how good Uthoff or the Hawkeyes were for about the first 70 percent of the season. That's a shame.
The point is the Hawkeyes lost Uthoff, guard Anthony Clemmons, point guard Mike Gesell and center Adam Woodbury. All four were seniors; Gesell and Woodbury started as freshmen. In their wake stands Jok, whose scoring prowess often lifted Iowa's attack to new heights last season. Can he be as effective without so many weapons -- let alone that much entwined, almost-telepathic experience -- surrounding him? What is Iowa if he can't?
London Perrantes, Virginia Cavaliers: The Cavaliers are a team with much to replace. They have the pieces for the job, from developing veterans to a stocked recruiting class to key transfers -- Memphis expatriate Austin Nichols in particular. Even with departures as significant as those of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill (and, with all due respect, Mike Tobey), is there any doubt that Tony Bennett is capable of tying together yet another complex, balanced, defensively locked-in UVa team? Of course there isn't.
Still, Perrantes has the most important role of all: the natural next-leader-up for a group that lost both its straight-laced Captain America (Brogdon) and its joke-a-second Iron Man (Gill) in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, the practical effect of Brogdon's departure is likely to mean more ballhandling and fewer catch-and-shoot looks for Perrantes. After a breakout season, he'll be more important than ever in every regard.
Mike Daum, South Dakota State Jackrabbits: Fun facts about Daum: He led his team in points (15.2) and rebounds (6.1), scored in double figures in 30 games, including 21 straight to end the season, accounted for 31.2 percent of his team's available possessions and 30.2 percent of its shots, drew 7.6 (!) fouls per 40 minutes, posted 82.6/57.2/44.4 percent shooting splits, went with @dauminator24 on Twitter and had 18 points, nine boards and a 49 percent usage rate (!!) in March's Summit League championship win over North Dakota State.
Another fun fact about Daum: He started only two games all of last season. Imagine how important he'll be when he finally gets off the pine.